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Smoke and Numbers: Do Green Claims for Burning Wood Add Up?

Biomass graphic

The trouble with biomass carbon "offsets": Growing trees absorb carbon from the air (1-4). Burning wood releases it again (5); just like burning coal or oil (6). "Offsets" imagine that carbon released from burning wood "cancels out" carbon from fossil fuels (7). It doesn't; it adds to them (8). In fact, it takes decades for new trees to recapture the carbon released when the old ones were burned (9-12). Graphic by Indiana Joel.

For a place with so much nature, British Columbia has struggled to identify with any of the big next-generation sources of renewable energy.

Most of the province's electricity comes from large hydro dams. That power is renewable, but efforts to expand production through privately owned "run-of-river" generation, or BC Hydro's own proposed Site C dam, are fiercely contested.

Our long summer days are offset by short and cloudy winter ones, with the result that solar energy is an affair of the heart more than the pocketbook: one installation on a North Vancouver home will take an estimated two-and-a-half centuries to pay for itself.

Some of the world's strongest winds are clocked off the northern tip of Vancouver Island. But getting power from Hecate Strait to southern markets is an overwhelming engineering challenge.

Then there's biomass: plants that can be burned and replaced with new ones that suck back up the carbon that was released in the flames. British Columbia's unofficial provincial motto could be "Trees'R'Us." Might the province's forests turn it into a veritable Saudi Arabia of renewable biofuel? We're on our way at least: shipments of B.C. fuelwood pellets are worth nearly $200 million a year to the provincial economy.

But with fire comes smoke -- and, inevitably greenhouse gases. A growing chorus of biomass skeptics questions how green and climate-friendly wood fuel truly is.

The subject is complicated, but we thought Tyee readers needed to know whether B.C. forests were being used to save the climate, or greenwash. So we partnered with Investigate West, a Seattle-based non-profit journalism studio, to examine B.C.'s biomass bonanza.

To support this series, Robert McClure received a Tyee Fellowship for Investigative Reporting, a $5,000 bursary funded by Tyee readers to pursue a major journalism project in the public interest for British Columbians.

In This Series


UBC Biomass Research and Development Facility

Are Climate Claims for Burning Renewable Trees a Smokescreen?

The answer surprised us too. First in a series.

By Robert McClure, 22 Apr 2014


Biomass graphic

Biomass Fuel: Worse for Climate than Coal?

It depends. Do you mean now, or decades later? Part of a series.

By Robert McClure, 23 Apr 2014


Binderholz Pellets

Sketchy Claims Inflate BC's Wood Energy Exports

In efforts to sell 'biomass energy' to Europe and beyond, the climate may be the loser.

By Robert McClure, 24 Apr 2014

Real Cities Give Their People Places to Pee

Public washrooms should be plentiful and accessible, says one scholar. And cities that do flush, flourish.

By Christopher Cheung